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Local Cuisine in Rio


Classic Meals in Rio de Janeiro




Local Cuisine in Rio

If this is your first time in Rio, what can you expect from the local cuisine? Cooking in Rio is fun, exotic, and richly satisfying, but there´s no great tradition of the grand-chef, although the expensive restaurants still look to Paris for their menus. But if you give the local, more democratic cuisine a try - be sure, you won´t go hungry. Here is a brief guide to the history of Rio´s cooking, what you might expect to find on a menu today and a few tips to consider before you travel.

A Little History...

By the time the Portuguese landed in Brazil in 1500, there were, it´s estimated, three million Indians living there. The expedition was on its way to India but drifted off course and dropped anchor at the mouth of what Pedro Cabral, the leader, thought was a vast river; hence the name Rio de Janeiro, or River of January. But it wasn´t a river, it was a bay, plus it was May, so he got that wrong too.  The Indians were cooking manioc, or cassava, and other root vegetables, corn, potatoes, nuts and fish. They seasoned with herbs, molasses and peppers.  Fruit was plentiful, of course: guaranáabacate (avocado), bananas and pineapples, and many tropical fruits we don´t even have names for. (Don´t forget the super fruit, açaí). Slaves were transported from west Africa and brought more spices. Their plantation labour was hard, so they needed the protein cheaply provided by feijão, or black beans. The Indians boiled or steamed their dishes, but the Africans preferred oil, such as red palm oil, or dendê.


You can still find these ingredients in the everyday cooking in Rio.  Moqueca de peixe, or fish soup relies on the Indian traditions. And no self-respecting corner bar would fail to offer a Saturday feijoada, or simply a bean-feast. Get ready for a lunch of beans, rice, cabbage, sausage, pig´s ears or trotters, dried beef, pork, onions, oranges (yes, they go in the mix), peppers, limes (there are no lemons in Brazil, just limes) - but don´t plan to do anything for the rest of the day. The post-feijoada nap in a hammock is expected. A good feijoada depends on the cheap meat off-cuts, which the slave-master used to pass on to the slaves. Sugar was the powerhouse industry until the mid-19th century and even today sticky sugary snacks are eaten at any time of the day. Coffee, that other Brazilian staple, seems to be taken three parts sugar to one part of expresso. Other immigrants - Italians, Spanish, Germans, Lebanese, and of course the Portuguese -brought their culinary traditions with them. Before the Japanese arrived, there were almost no apple trees in Brazil.

Meat Eaters Only

In Rio, you can find a vast array of ingredients, restaurants and cooking styles, but tell the waiter you´re a vegetarian, and you´ll probably be offered a pitiful look and a ham omelet, or a vast plate of soggy lettuce. But if you´re a carnivore, you luck´s in. The charrascaria, or barbecue restaurant, is a prime location for Brazilian families, especially at weekends. The meat, skewered onto swords, keeps coming to your table long after you think you´ve reached capacity. The beef cuts are different from ours, and are supplemented with chicken, pork and even lamb (the last, unfortunately, no Brazilian knows how to cook). If you feel a pang of remorse at so much beef-gorging in a churrascaria, you can always skip the calorie-bomb known as baba de moça, or coconut custard for dessert.

If you´re invited to a friend´s barbecue, or churrasco,  probably on a Sunday, be well-advised to take things slowly. You´ll start around midday and could be there until five or six. The afternoon could be punctuated by a quick game of 5-a-side or even a few sambas, while assorted cousins, aunts, uncles, neighbours and grandparents drop by. Again, don´t aim to do anything in the evening.

Alcoholic Beverages

You may have heard of caipirinha, the base of which is cachaça, or alcohol distilled from sugar cane. On a hot day, coming back from Ipanema beach, an ice-cold caipirinha may be tempting, but remember that Brazilians actually power their cars on sugar-cane alcohol, so it´s best to stick to a glass of beer, which goes down slower and is about one tenth of the alcohol content. Avoid wine in Brazil, unless you´re in the states neighbouring Argentina or Uruguay. And in Rio, avoid wine like poison. Unless you´re dining in a six-star hotel, it will come to your table in a pre-vinegar condition. Fruit juices are delicious surprises and are plentiful in Rio: if you need a kick, you can always mix them with vodka.

Safety Precautions

Sensible precautions apply, just as in every foreign country. You eat food from a street stall at your own risk. In Latin countries such as Brazil it is really important to take out full health insurance. The local hospitals are not recommended for Westerners, and are hard enough to negotiate as a local. You will face a very long wait if you turn up to a local state run hospital in Rio. Roughly 25% of population chose to take out private health insurance and private hospitals are superb, so make sure you have full cover in case of emergencies. Check online for the best deals before you set off and study the small print carefully. Don´t be put off, however, as the standards of food hygiene in Rio are actually extremely high, due to the climate. Food that is left out simply goes off, or is eaten by insects, so Brazilians tend to be scrupulous with food hygiene. Be adventurous with your food choices - it´s part of the fun of exploring a new culture.



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